An ill-conceived plan by the nation's space agency to build a government-owned solid-fuel booster rocket plant ran into an obstacle last week when a congressional panel said the whole project was a bad idea.
And the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel - made up of aerospace and safety specialists outside of NASA - is correct in its judgment.NASA has been pushing for a U.S.-owned rocket plant to produce a "new generation" of more powerful shuttle booster rockets. NASA officials say they need the additional power that could add 12,000 pounds to the shuttle's present 40,000-pound payload. Certainly, such a feature would be nice, but in an era of limited budgets, it hardly can be justified as necessary.
The planned NASA facility would be constructed on a coastal location so the giant boosters could be easily shipped to Cape Canaveral, Fla., by water. Utah's Morton Thiokol, builder of the current boosters, would not be involved.
The idea of the government building and owning the plant would be a way to get it built without requiring huge investments by private aerospace firms. A private company would then operate the plant under a federal lease. This would give NASA more immediate control of the project and allow it to quickly replace a company if the agency were dissatisfied with the firm's performance.
When this idea was first announced, the Deseret News pointed out that it was senseless to take $1.3 billion from a deficit-ridden federal budget and invest it in such a facility when perfectly good booster rockets are being made in existing privately-owned plants.
Even inside NASA, early opinion was divided on this issue, but the new-booster backers won the day.
In its examination of the issue, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said it "felt strongly" that the NASA decision was a mistake and that the space agency should save money by improving existing boosters instead of building a new version.
Since the Challenger disaster, Thiokol has produced a solid-fuel booster that has passed the most rigorous tests that NASA and the company could devise. And those boosters have worked flawlessly in the resumption of the shuttle flights.
The panel's report came just as NASA was prepared to award contracts for building an advanced-booster factory in Mississippi. While NASA has agreed to take a second look at the project, the space agency's top officials appear to have made up their minds to basically ignore the panel's advice.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel was established by Congress in 1967 after the Apollo launch-pad fire killed three astronauts. It issues a report once a year.
Congress should pay attention to what its own agency says and take steps to eliminate this expensive new booster rocket program that makes little sense.